Nickel Creek is the consensus pick among this strong crop of singles.
A Spotify playlist of all six tracks is at the end of the post and can also be viewed here.
“It Don’t Fade”
Written by Mya Byrne
JK: The first single of Byrne’s I heard was 2022’s “Autumn Sun,” a fantastic slice of Beatles-inspired rock that impressed for Byrne’s ear for a strong melody. I dug it, but it also didn’t scan as “country” to my ears. That’s not the case with “It Don’t Fade,” which lays down a country-blues groove as the foundation for another of Byrne’s killer melodies and for a lyric that finds sources of optimism even in dire circumstances. Byrne drops some unexpected imagery into what’s otherwise a fairly straightforward single, and I love how the unassuming vibe leans into the song’s positivity. This one is a pure charm attack. A
ZK: This is just a nice, rollicking ball of energy through and through. Aside from being a bit choppy at points in the progression, this is one of those singles that feels like a warm welcome from an old friend. I look forward to hearing more from her. B+
KJC: “It Don’t Fade” is a burst of optimism that can make you believe in a better world for the duration of its runtime. One thing that’s been missing since Mary Chapin Carpenter exited country radio is this kind of literate material, where the bouncy melody and catchy rhythm track are accompanied by a vocabulary beyond that of your average high schooler.
Byrne doesn’t condescend to her audience, giving us mild encouragement that doesn’t promise better days ahead, but she does guarantee that the sun will shine and that’s something to celebrate. A
“Rock the Boat”
Written by Karen Jonas
ZK: Karen Jonas has been a consistently excellent (and underrated) presence in country music over the past decade, and when she leans into southern-Gothic territory, she’s damn-near unstoppable. “Rock the Boat” continues that tradition, striking the right balance in a soft-loud dynamic by pairing its sinister, potent main electric riff with more atmospheric, distorted production, in turn letting Jonas’ typically quieter vocals rise to the front of the mix and blaze with an emotional intensity she mastered long ago.
The groove gets a bit choppy at points – could be intentional with a song called “Rock the Boat” and all – and it’s a bit less lyrically direct than Jonas’ other character portraits. But in playing to abstract imagery, the danger and mystique still strikes its target. A-
KJC: This dark and moody number opens with a failed baptism and only goes downhill from there. If Byrne finds hope in the sunshine, Jonas is drawn to the darkness, acknowledging the ultimate futility of our existence. Regardless of the paths we choose, it will end in death. Let this truth liberate you to make the most of the path that you’re on, and don’t worry too much about those who will tell you you’re going the wrong way. The hooded bandit is going to get them, too, by and by. B+
JK: Jonas is someone whose music I’ve liked a lot to this point, even if she’s remained on the periphery of what I’d consider my go-to artists. “Rock The Boat” is more squarely in the middle of my wheelhouse: High school and college me, being super into the most alt-leaning of “alt-country,” would have been all over the distortion and deliberate inaccessibility of this. These days, artists have to justify their abstractions a bit more for me to bite, and that’s what Jonas does here. This is another fine example of matching purposeful production and performance choices to the greater thematic bent of a song, and it might just be my favorite single she’s released to date. A-
Written by Mike Elizondo, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins
KJC: The most remarkable thing about the return of Nickel Creek is that two decades after they broke through, they still sound like they’re from some faraway future country and bluegrass utopia. Which is just a fancy way of saying that they’re still way ahead of their time, and no matter how long that they’re away, the rest of the world can’t quite catch up to them.
“Strangers” has a subtle and evocative start, slowly reintroducing us to their trademark harmonies and philosophical lyricism. Once the mandolin and fiddle kick in, things become otherworldly all over again. This is progressive acoustic music in the very best sense, and it only becomes more and more rewarding upon repeated listens. A
JK: What’s striking about these three is that, no matter how long they go between collaborations and no matter how far afield from their origins their other projects might wander, they always sound like a singular, cohesive band with a fully evolved aesthetic and point of view. They were a generational talent when they arrived two-plus decades ago, and they remain so on “Strangers.” Production-wise, this reminds me more of their Why Should The Fire Die era than 2014’s A Dotted Line, but it’s still of a piece with their immediately recognizable sound. I had no idea they were planning a comeback for 2023, but God, am I glad to have them back. A
ZK: Well, this certainly disrupted my 2023 bingo card in a great way. Given how “Strangers” relies on close-knit, damn-near angelic harmonies and excellent production in the softer, liquid bluegrass flourishes – seriously, the way the fiddle soars in that one solo just makes my heart flutter – too, it’s as if the Nickel Creek members pick up right where they left off nearly a decade ago. It’s also fitting to hear a song about, well, coming back together, no doubt influenced by the last few years, but thankfully broad enough to let the heartbeat rest in the song’s momentum and urgency.
Oh, it’s so good to have them back. A
Written by Jim Beavers and Chapel Hart
JK: The most polished-sounding single this trio has released thus far, “Glory Days” has all of the hallmarks of something that country radio should embrace. If “I Will Follow” and “You Can Have Him Jolene” sounded like hits, “Glory Days” leans even harder into crisp, contemporary production that wouldn’t sound a bit out of place on a playlist between the latest hits by Jon Pardi and Carly Pearce. That’s a pro in my book, of course, since quality mainstream country isn’t a pejorative.
Vocally, Chapel Hart sound exactly as phenomenal as they always do. The lyrics of “Glory Days” are perhaps a bit rote in terms of the struggles of paying their proverbial dues on the road, but that’s really a minor quibble when that story is sung with such skill and conviction. I’ll say I wish they were keeping less toxic company than the likes of John Rich and Mike Huckabee, but I remain firmly in their corner. They deserve to be one of country’s A-list acts, and singles like this one prove why. A
ZK: At this point, there’s no excuse for why Chapel Hart haven’t broken through Nashville’s most guarded doors yet. The harmonies are excellent, every member sports huge levels of charisma, and both sonically and lyrically, they’re accessible in a way that reminds me of an act I would have heard on the radio growing up, while fitting squarely within a modern-day setting.
And all of that remains true with new single “Glory Days,” what with that warm, robust melodic groove anchored in the warm acoustics and electric axes. And with more miles behind them, there’s a healthy dose of personal perspective imbued in the framing, where they stand as the young but still road-weary band paying their dues and struggling along the way. If anything, it makes the conventional “these are the good ol’ days” hook shine with a healthy dose of optimism, because it doesn’t shy away from a harsher reality; they’re pushing on through regardless. Hell, we’re in their corner, and we’re far from the only ones. A
KJC: I got on board with Chapel Hart with the wonderful “I Will Follow,” and I’m still there, even if “Glory Days” feels to me like a retread of that earlier hit. I’m not crazy about the lead vocal on this one, and it mars the experience for me. The harmonies are still tight and a nineties country production is always welcome, but a lyrical reference to rewinding the VCR sounds more anachronistic than nostalgic, like they couldn’t find a more contemporary metaphor, so they just went with some eighties tech.
I’m still rooting for them, and hopefully they’ll till some new soil for their next effort. C
Written by Drayton Farley
ZK: Drayton Farley looks to be one of those independent country artists primed for a breakthrough, especially ahead of a major label debut album. And unlike his earlier lo-fi work, this definitely has a lot of urgent heart in its stabs at ramshackle heartland rock and Americana iconography. But given that Sadler Vaden is handling production here and that other members of Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit band contribute instrumentally – coupled with the fact that Farley sounds like a dead ringer for early era Isbell – I can’t help but feel like I’m listening to a record that’s a bit anonymous in nature. To be fair, it’s a good style to play toward, but considering this also plays to pretty familiar “working man blues” tropes, I’m left wishing I liked this more than I actually do. B-
KJC: Jason Isbell influencing a new generation of songwriters is something that I full support, especially if they’re going to emulate Isbell’s bleeding heart for the working class schlubs being left behind, the ones who “can’t afford to break” so they “always bend.”
Where Farley falls short a bit here is in his eye for detail. There isn’t enough specificity in this individual experience of a working man’s purgatory, and he relies so heavily on the repetition of the line “It’s all the way it’s always been” that he sounds more influenced by Jim Steinman than Isbell by the end.
This is a record with a lot of promise that will hopefully be fulfilled down the road. B
JK: I’m glad Zack pointed out the overlap with The 400 Unit because, when this single first came up on my 2023 playlist, I actually thought it was a Jason Isbell B-side or one-off. Unfortunately, “knock-off” might be a more apt description upon repeated listens. While there are far, far, far worse acts to whom one could invite comparison, Farley doesn’t do enough on this single to establish a distinct identity or sound. This is fine. But if the men of the country mainstream shouldn’t be falling over themselves to sound just like Morgan Wallen, the men of Americana shouldn’t be playing the imitation game with Isbell, either. B
“Looking For You”
Written by Chris DeStefano, James McNair, and Emily Weisband
KJC: Chris Young is a great country singer who has spent his career crafting radio spackle – songs that are designed to blend in seamlessly with the songs that are played before and after.
Good spackle can’t be seen by the naked eye, and there’s nothing about “Looking For You” that stands out to the naked ear. It’s so generic and bland that even the chorus has been forgotten by the time it comes back around again. What a waste of time and talent. D
JK: The most I’ve thought about Chris Young in years is the anecdote that he was such a raging asshole to Elle King while taping some competition show that she named her album, Come Get Your Wife, after something Young shouted at her boyfriend in the audience. “Looking For You” does not make enough of an impression to overshadow that tale. The story here remains the same as it has been for the majority of his career: He’s clearly content to waste one of the few great voices among the genre’s contemporary men on trend-chasing production and vapid, cliché-addled songwriting. This isn’t as abhorrent as the Wallen knock-offs I mentioned up above, but that’s pretty well the only bar this clears. D
ZK: I’d like to preface this by stating that I’m not one of those writers who automatically uses pop-country as an intended pejorative; I love a good hook and sugary melody. It just so happens that Nashville has been in short supply of memorable or distinctive tunes for, well, a very long time. But given that neotraditional tones are back in style, Chris Young is doing himself no favors by once again resorting to the same bland and gutless style he’s been coasting on for over a decade now. Really, it’s a miracle he’s somehow stuck around this long, and with the naturally warm, charismatic baritone he carries, he could make it count for something.
Instead, this is just another painfully boring, plodding love song I’ll forget in record time. Ain’t no one looking for this. D+